Bukharan musical traditions demonstrate the diversity of the Jewish world, the unifying power of the arts and the fact that Jewish people can thrive under Muslim rule, asserted ethnomusicologist Evan Rapport during a special presentation at the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills on Tuesday.
With the help of instruments, videos, recordings and photographs, Rapport, an assistant professor at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, discussed the culture and history of one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities to about 70 lecture attendees at the 108th Street agency.
Centered around the cities of Bukhara and Samarqand in Central Asia, the Bukharan Jewish community dates back roughly 2,500 years. It has survived everything from forced conversion to Islam by Uzbeki rulers to political domination by Russian Communists.
“Much of our [Jewish] culture can be traced to this region,” said Rapport, who described himself as an Ashkenazi Jew from Maryland.
Bukharan Jews have a distinct musical tradition called “Shashmaqam” or six Maqams (modes) in Persian. It features stringed instruments such as the tanbur, a long-necked lute, and the doira, a single-headed frame drum with jingles.
Many of the lyrics are taken from Sufi-inspired texts and poems about divine love, and the melodies fuse Central Asian rhythms with Persian cadences. Live performances are marked by spontaneity and high-pitched crooning in Persian and Turkic. Singers often wear colorful, formal attire.
Since the 1980s, Bukharan Jews have been fleeing their historic homeland (the region includes the modern day countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) en masse, moving mainly to Israel and New York City. Many have settled in the Forest Hills-Rego Park area, where their music is experiencing a kind of renaissance.
Rapport, who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, displayed a photo of David Daidov, who makes tanburs by hand in Kew Gardens. He also mentioned a Maqam music school in Rego Park and played a rap video of Queens-raised Nargis Malayeva, the daughter of legendary Bukharan folk musician Ilyas Mallayev.
“A rich musical history got richer,” he said. “It’s vibrant and rapidly changing.”